Coming to Understand Our Mysterious Elder Brothers

Father Marcel Dubois deciphers the complex Christian-Jewish relationship

Father Marcel Dubois, an expert on Christian-Jewish relations who makes his home in the Holy Land, recently met with Joop Koopman in Jerusalem. The Dominican priest reflected on political tensions in Israel, as well as the Vatican's efforts to engage the Jewish community in interreligious dialogue.

Koopman: Violence continues to disturb the Holy Land. While terrorist acts are almost universally condemned, Israeli policies under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also blamed for the continued crisis. How does the political situation affect your work of examining the mystery of the Jewish people and their relationship with the Church?

Father Dubois: There is no doubt that some of the actions of the Israeli government have damaged the beauty of the Jewish image, the Jewish likeness of God. The benevolence toward Jewish suffering throughout history remains. However, there is little doubt that the conservative government is hurting the Jewish cause some.

The crisis goes beyond the political. Jewish consciousness in Israel is broken up; there is no unanimity. The religious dimension of Jewish life here has been falsified as it has been used for strictly political purposes. Paradoxically, the prime minister has availed himself of the country's religious parties, but he himself is not religious. All these contradictions make for an unhealthy situation.

The Israeli government has invited the Pope to visit the Holy Land as soon as possible, in conjunction with the Jubilee Year 2000. Palestinian officials have protested that such a visit would lend legitimacy to the Israeli policies with regard to Jerusalem and their claim of exclusive sovereignty over the city. What is your opinion on this?

I would not want to be in charge of protocol for such a visit. The significance of such a trip would be ambiguous at best. The Pope would have to meet with Israelis, Palestinians, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Muslims, Jews—but which kind of Jews, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform? The only way it could be done, I suppose, is that the Pontiff would arrive by helicopter—without traversing any particular territory—say Mass, and leave again. That would not be useful, though.

Regardless of whether John Paul II will visit Israel or not, he certainly is a friend of the Jews, having made the fostering of Catholic-Jewish relations and mutual understanding a key element in his pontificate. That also has been the heart of your work among the Jewish people. You have often spoken of the “Christic dimension” of Judaism, of the Jewish people. Do you have only faithful, practicing Jews in mind or all Jews?

It is not my job to judge whether someone is faithful or not. For starters, I must pay close attention, which is something many Christian pilgrims coming here don't do. We have to be mindful of the teleology of the Jewish people—no matter what, a Jew is a member of the Jewish people, a member of the people chosen by God to prepare for the coming of the Messiah and to promote his word in the world. Hence, I must consider the existence of the Jews as a sacrament of the presence of God in Israel.

Regardless of whether individual Jews are practicing or not?

Indeed. That requires a great deal of silence and respect on our part, as well as compassion, and sadness—but, of course, those faithful to the Torah have a special place. For Christians, Jesus mediates between God and my heart; the Torah is there for the Jews. I can deplore the fact that when Jews pray, they do not mention Christ or acknowledge his presence. But, in light of my own Christian faith, I can say that they still address the Father through the Son, but without being aware of it.

That would be hard to make explicit in dialogue with the Jews; it would turn them away.

Of course, we have to remain silent, or risk closing their hearts. I am becoming more and more convinced that the most realistic way of being present as Christians among the Jewish people is to remain silent—or to encourage their faithfulness to their tradition. From this point of view, the best witness of the Church in this country are the monastic communities, precisely because they are contemplative.

Latin Patriarch Michel Sabbah last spring spoke of the need for authentic dialogue with the Jewish people, calling on his own people and, it seemed, the Muslim community at large, to show a greater willingness in this regard. Though the archbishop is often critical of Israeli policies, his talk appeared to signal a softening of his position.

The patriarch is very open-minded. Don't forget the following: The language of the Palestinian Christian community is Arabic and since Arabic is the language of the Koran, the cultural milieu of the Christian Arab community is Muslim. Hence, Church leaders must tread gingerly in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and not appear to be choosing sides.

But is real dialogue possible then?

The true encounter called for at the moment is not dialogue. It requires, first of all, an objective mutual knowledge and respect for the identity and faithfulness of the potential dialogue partners. This process requires a deep silence and in-depth study. Atrue encounter means recognizing that the “other” does not want to be considered as an object. Two kinds of faithfulness—Jewish and Christian—can respect each other.

How does Jewish faithfulness relate to Christian faithfulness?

The monastic vocation is an icon of sanctity within the Church. I would use the same definition for a people called by God to listen to his word, to meditate on it, day and night, and to realize it in daily life. That is the function of the Jewish people in the Bible and still today and that is also the function of monks and nuns in the Church, who, as it were, represent the continuity of the vocation of Israel, as they live out a dimension of Christianity which is a heritage of Israel.

It would seem, then, that even the non-practicing Jew upholds something of this heritage, just by virtue of being?

Faithfulness involves both consciousness of a certain identity and knowledge of the Torah. To admit that one shares the Jewish identity can be a first step, to accept to belong to a mysterious community with a very mysterious vocation that is so important for the world. That already is a kind of faithfulness.

That is clearly different for non-Jews, who, to be elected, too, must be baptized.

That election, indeed, is not inscribed in their nature, if you will. But there is an analogy, as in baptism we, too, join the people of Israel.

What about Muslims? They do not seem to fit this model of “chosen-ness” in the same way at all.

I am not an expert on Islam, but the relationship between Israel and the Church is central and exemplary for all other interreligious relationships. There is a purity in the link between the Jews and the Church. The relationship between Muslims and Jesus involves different sources, a different soil. There is something in the purity of the link between Israel and the Church which is exemplary for the link between Muslims and Jesus, which, nevertheless, can never be seen on the same level. We must think, though, of the calling of the Jewish people and their response to it as a model for all religions.

You have said in the past that a healthy relationship between Jews and Catholics, between Jews and Christians, is vital for the good of the world. Please explain your position.

Consider God's mysterious proposal, his promise of salvation, as revealed in the Bible, in the New Testament, and how it is experienced in the history of Israel and the Church. It is clear that God wants to unite all the world in one people. But here we have two communities, who each pretend to be that people—the people of Israel and the Church, which even has referred to herself as “the new Israel,” which was clearly a mistake. Here we have Israel ordered by law, according to the flesh, and Israel announced by the New Testament, followers of Christ. The two side by side are a mystery, an unfathomable mystery.

Again, it calls for mutual respect.

For Jews it is important to see the Church as a mysterious relative—a Church, like the people of Israel, that is faithful and aware of its vocation— and to consider the sanctity of Christ. For Christians, it is important to consider the Christic dynamism of the Jewish people. Faithfulness itself speaks of Christ. In this faithfulness of the Jews [to their divine calling, to their election] there is something which is already Christian.

And this would not be true for the faithful Buddhist?

There are degrees of proximity [to Christ]. And Judaism is at the center, along with the Church. But all of humanity is drawn to the center. In Christ, God has given divine value to human life, to every authentic—and I underline authentic—human feeling and action, each discovery, art, friendship, love, and suffering. All this has received new value in the beauty of Christ.

In the love of a mother for her child we see an image of God's tenderness for his creatures. But especially every human suffering—through the power of the cross and Christ's victory—has been given a sacramental value. It is not a sacrament like the seven sacraments we know, but we will be amazed when we enter the kingdom of paradise to find huge crowds of people who have never heard of Christ, or met him, but who will recognize that we are all saved by the sacrament of the Cross, and the suffering and death of Jesus.

It depends on how people suffer, whether they accept it.

Indeed, whether they suffer with open-mindedness and without selfishness or bitterness. If we look at the world in this light, everything changes. That is the fruit of the Incarnation—God has visited all dimensions of human feelings.

What about the suffering of the Jews, who appear to be singled out in a particular way.

It is not easy to speak of the sacramental value of suffering before the Jews, who exemplify in many respects the tragedy of human suffering. Still, their suffering, too, receives its mysterious value from the cross of Christ.

Still, that wouldn't justify, for example, the controversial cross at Auschwitz?

No, not at all. All of these truths require an ocean of silence. We must be prepared to recognize Jewish faithfulness. The closest to the mystery of Christ are the people of his people. We are called to look at the Jewish people as Jesus himself looks at his people.

The Vatican is due to publish a document and discuss the Church's role during World War II and the holocaust. How important will that text be?

Very important, of course. Christians must understand the mystery of Jewish suffering. Jews, for their part, must accept other people pondering [and to an extent] participating in this suffering. For the Jews, there is the temptation of self-sufficiency, selfishness, and the notion that this suffering is a purely Jewish affair, a stance made worse, of course, by the fact that Christians were often to blame for Jewish pain.

Just as there must be a contemplation of the mystery of the Jewish people, and justice and kindness toward them, the Jews are challenged to contemplate the mystery of the cross.

—Joop Koopman

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